Historic Boycott of The Hajj in Saudi Arabia


 Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud, when asked in 1918 about the Shi‘ite shrines in Iraq, could still declare that “I would raise no objection if you demolished the whole lot of them, and I would demolish them myself if I had the chance.” 9 He never had that chance, but he did besiege and occupy Medina, and his bombardment of the city produced a general strike in Iran and an uproar throughout the Shi‘ite world. For while the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca holds the same significance for Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the visitation (ziyara) to nearby Medina is of special significance for Shi‘ites. The cemetery of al-Baqi‘, near the city, is the reputed resting place of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and four of the Twelve Imams. It was the Shi‘ite practice at this cemetery to pray for their intercession with God. 10 The Wah habis, for whom prayer through these intercessors represented a form of idolatry, had leveled much of this cemetery in 1806, during an earlier occupation of Medina, but its domed tombs had been rebuilt by the end of the century. Now the Saudis, in their purifying zeal, again demolished the domes of al-Baqi‘, a move regarded by Shi‘ites as desecration of their hallowed shrines. 

The demolition created so profound a sentiment in Iran, especially in religious circles, that the Iranian government refused to recognize Ibn Sa‘ud’s rule. Instead, Iran demanded that a general assembly of Muslims be created to regulate the holy cities, while a Shi‘ite conference convened in Lucknow, India, called upon all Muslims to use every possible means to expel Ibn Sa‘ud from the Hijaz. 11 Denial of recognition was combined, in 1927, with a decision by Iran to forbid the pilgrimage to its nationals, as an act of protest against the alleged intolerance of the Wahhabis and their destruction of tombs. 12

Still, the ban failed to discourage the most determined pilgrims from Iran, who continued to arrive via Iraq and Syria. And in a pragmatic step, Ibn Sa‘ud moved to defuse the extensive Shi‘ite agitation against him by a show of tolerance designed to win official Iranian recognition. Shi‘ite pilgrims from Arab lands met with exemplary treatment during the year in which Iran imposed the ban, and Iran’s ulama soon were demanding the restored right to perform the pilgrimage. In 1928, Iran lifted the pilgrimage ban, and in 1929 Iran and Ibn Sa‘ud’s kingdom concluded a treaty of friendship. Article 3 of the treaty guaranteed that Iran’s pilgrims would enjoy treatment identical to that of pilgrims from other countries, and that they would not be prevented from observing their own religious rites.13

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